Food security is national security

By Matt Reese

I recently saw an old tin sign hanging in a friend’s house that said: Farm — a piece of land and the buildings upon it used for the production of crops and the rearing of livestock.

This simple definition is the base layer building block of our society. Law, order, entertainment, fashion, art, music, organized religion, politics, sports, events, education, and pretty much everything else all fall apart pretty quickly in the absence of food. This makes each farm, and the agricultural industry as a whole, greater than the sum of its parts.

With this in mind, over the winter the U.S. Department of Agriculture released some unsettling numbers. In fiscal year 2023, the United States was a net importer of agricultural products, meaning the country imported a higher value of agricultural products than were exported.

While the United States typically exports more agricultural goods by value than it imports, the value of imports has grown more rapidly than exports over the past decade, contributing to a negative trade balance in some years. The recent robust increase in U.S. demand for imports has been largely driven by the strong U.S. dollar and consumer preferences for year-round produce selections. The resulting agricultural trade balance was negative in 3 of the past 10 fiscal years, according to the USDA Economic Research Service.

Highlights from the report from the USDA Economic Research Service can be found at: ers.usda.gov/data-products/ag-and-food-statistics-charting-the-essentials/agricultural-trade/.

In terms of those agricultural imports, horticultural products remain the largest import category at $99.9 billion in FY 2023 — almost half of the total. The category of horticultural products includes fruits, vegetables, and tree nuts, along with a wide variety of goods including distilled spirits, wine, and beer, followed by miscellaneous horticultural products, such as processed foods and ingredients, as well as essential oils, nursery, and cut flowers. Import growth into the U.S. was strongest from Mexico, which is forecast to remain the top supplier of agricultural products to the United States, followed by Canada and the EU, according to USDA figures.

So, while the import/export balance of U.S. agriculture is not as dire as it would initially sound, it still is noteworthy and worthy of consideration moving forward. And, quite frankly, it is a little unsettling. Beyond the impacts a negative agricultural trade balance has on our country, there are also impacts with regard the global influence of the United States globally.

“Food security is national security. That’s what motivates us to come to work to every day,” said Mark Purdy, retired Army Colonel and COO of Aimpoint Research based in Columbus in an interview with Dusty Sonnenberg. “As far as concern around being able to eat and things like that, that figure [from the USDA] and what goes into it doesn’t concern me. What does concern me is going back to my roots as an Army officer. It’s about American food power and with American food power we want to maximize our production so that we can export what we have to provide that nutrition around the world, because our influence around the world matters. If we attach to it — which I think we do — our American values that food security is national security, not just for the United States but for the other nations around the world, we need to be that net exporter. Because if they’re not coming to the United States, they’re going somewhere else and attached to those exports are values and ideals, human rights and things of that nature.”

Moving forward, the agricultural trade balance will likely shift back in favor of the United States simply based on changing global factors and historic trends. Whether it does or does not, though, U.S. society and many other societies around the world are depending on the resilience, innovation and amazing productivity of U.S. agriculture as a whole and your individual farms.

“The message to our American farmers is to keep innovating, keep producing. We need you to produce more. We need you to keep increasing that value of what you produce,” Purdy said. “The bigger message is to our leaders and policymakers. We have to have the global leadership required so that our national power includes food. Food — and a lack of food insecurity — is way more effective than weapons and guns and it advances a whole lot of things. That’s my takeaway. We can’t take this for granted and leaders of our nation need to roll up their sleeves and take pause at that number. And American farmers and ranchers, keep doing what you’re doing. You’ve got to innovate and you’ve got to lead. I’m fully confident and my money’s on our American farmers and ranchers. We’re going through some added pressure here coming in 2024, but we’re going to innovate and we’re going to come out on the other side of this if we step up and lead at all levels, not just our farmers and ranchers, but our leaders, policymakers and so on in the industry.”

With this in mind, I’d like to expand on the initial definition. Farm — a piece of land and the buildings upon it used for the production of crops and the rearing of livestock for the purpose of building a stable community, society and nation.

For more from Purdy, check out Ohio Ag Net Podcast EP. 344.

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